Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 10
The number of free blacks in the United States saw a significant rise during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
These newly freed blacks faced difficulties settling into American society and were generally excluded from the basic tenets of housing, health and education. Free blacks who became ill, for example, could not even rely on churches led by whites for help.
In the midst of such conditions, free blacks pooled their resources into mutual aid societies. These societies laid the institutional infrastructure of the early black community, championing ideals of self-help and racial solidarity.
The Free African Society is recognised as one of the first African American mutual aid organisations and was founded on 12 April 1787 by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones.
Allen, born 14 February 1760, would go on to found the first independent black denomination in the United States, while Jones, born 7 November 1746, would become the first black American to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.
While not affiliated to any religious order on its founding, the Free African Society extolled a strong sense of identity, spirituality and morality. For example, the society is noted to have expelled a man who had abandoned his family to pursue a relationship with a new woman.
The society quickly became an invaluable source of welfare for free blacks in Philadelphia. The society legitimised the weddings of former slaves, financially supported widows and orphans, developed free school programmes for children and provided medical care.
The society also obtained a burial plot to prevent the use of unmarked graves, often the final resting place of many black Americans at the time.
The Free African Society became a source of social and economic support for the free black community of Philadelphia. Alongside helping those in need, the society also encouraged members to work together in business, taught members the importance of financial independence and encouraged cultural pride.
In 1793 Philadelphia was beset with a yellow fever epidemic, and in response to the ever-increasing mortality rate, the mayor of Philadelphia enlisted the help of the Free African Society. The rationale being that African Americans were thought to be immune to yellow fever - this was not the case.
Regardless, black nurses attended the city’s sick and needy. One doctor recounts how
“African brethren… furnish nurses to most of my patients.”
Sadly, the end of the epidemic did not see the outpouring of thanks that would be expected in a civilised society. Instead, free blacks had to contend with a series of baseless accusations, including the falsehood that black Americans had brought yellow fever to Philadelphia.
Allen and Jones rebutted these accusations, highlighting the equal mortality rates between blacks and whites whilst reemphasising the hard work of the many black nurses who put themselves in harm's way to protect the city.
In the end, the Free African Society was unable to sustain itself following its exertions during the epidemic and backlash following it, and by the end of 1794, the society disbanded.
The legacy of the Free African Society can be seen in the individual lives impacted by the society, the subsequent black mutual aid organisations that developed across North America in the nineteenth century and their vital role during the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic.